Congressional Aides: Obscure. But on the Front Lines

They are the unseen.

They crunch numbers all day for the Budget Committee in the dingy, basement offices of the Cannon House Office Building. Or they craft environmental policy in jerry-rigged subterranean hovels next to a tunnel in the Longworth Building. They calm irate constituents over the phone on the third floor of Rayburn. Or they run in high heels over to the Cannon Rotunda to make sure the Congressman has his talking point before a live TV hit.

I didn't mention them dusting the lint off the Congressman's Brooks Brothers suit seconds before airtime.

These are the people who run Capitol Hill. They author the legislation, write the press releases and offer coffee to office visitors. They operate Congress from behind the scenes. They strive to evoke change, fight for a cause and help their bosses shine in the footlights.

They have names like Gabe Zimmerman, Ron Barber and Pam Simon.

The Congressional aides who run Capitol Hill weren't behind the scenes Monday morning. Just before 11 am, waves of them pushed back from their desks for a journey across the street to the United States Capitol.

Those who came were Democrats and Republicans. But on Monday, the most important denominator was that they were all Congressional staff.

U.S. Capitol Police momentarily halted traffic on Independence Avenue as a throng of staffers emptied out of the office buildings and streamed toward the House steps.

The crowd bundled up for the brisk morning in wool winter coats and Patagonia ski jackets. Toboggan hats insulated their heads. Those without gloves stuffed their hands deep into the pockets of their corduroy trousers.

The unseen spilled out of their offices to observe a moment of silence on the House steps in the wake of Saturday's massacre. The slaughter jarred Capitol Hill to its core like no incident since 9-11. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) clings to life in an Arizona ICU after a bullet cleaved her skull. The fusillade cut down Giffords' aide Gabe Zimmerman and maimed staffers Ron Barber and Pam Simon.

On Saturday morning, Zimmerman, Barber and Simon were all doing what the crowd gathered on the House steps does daily: managing the people's work behind the scenes. Behind the scenes, but on the front lines, like most Congressional aides. Which is why Zimmerman, Barber and Simon were trapped in the gale of bullets.

Staff was far from behind the scenes as they massed at the Capitol. Hundreds of them squeezed onto the steps, filling the space from the plaza all the way up to the columns that support the building's overhang.

And then at nearly the stroke of 11, House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood and Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer escorted two men down the steps: Barry Jackson, Chief of Staff to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and John Lawrence, Chief of Staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Jackson and Lawrence are the quintessential Congressional aides. They're two of the most powerful people you've never heard of.

Jackson and Lawrence are masters of Congressional invisibility. They're archetypes for the clutch of Congressional aides that stood on the steps around them. On the surface, the duo couldn't appear to be more different. Jackson has a paunch. He donned an olive sweater under his suit jacket. Lawrence is lean and bald. He sported a crisp white shirt and a silk, red tie for the occasion.

But the dedication of Jackson and Lawrence is the same. It's just rarely documented.

Like the aides around them, Jackson and Lawrence labor in the shadows while their bosses appear on "Meet the Press" or "The View." But this morning, it wasn't Boehner and Pelosi front and center. Instead, the House's top staffers led the Congressional family as it mourned one of its own in Zimmerman and prayed for the recoveries of Giffords, Barber and Simon.

Perhaps it's only fitting that authorities say intern Daniel Hernandez saved Giffords' life because of his first aid training.

You think staff gets no credit? Try Congressional interns.

The stories are legion on Capitol Hill about smart, earnest interns who repeatedly save the day in Congressional offices, though none quite like Hernandez apparently did.

On Monday, the aides stood quietly on the House steps until someone uttered "11:00." Most people in the crowd bowed their heads. Some squeezed their eyelids together. Terry Gainer touched the tips of his fingers together, making an inverted ‘V' as he prayed.

Sixty seconds later, the same voice declared it was "11:01."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), an ordained Methodist minister, then led the crowd in prayer.

"The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we ask your blessing," Cleaver began. "Help us move from this dark place to a place of sunshine and hope."

A foreboding veil now cloaks Capitol Hill. It was only compounded Monday when the Congressional community learned of the bizarre, pre-dawn death of Ashley Turton, former Chief of Staff to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). District of Columbia officials found Turton dead in her burned-out car after it somehow crashed into a garage at her home near the Capitol.

Top Congressional leaders published statements honoring Turton and praying for her husband, Dan and their three small children. The former Staff Director for the House Rules Committee, Dan Turton is one of the Obama Administration's liaisons to Congress and is at the Capitol daily.

Following Cleaver's benediction, he embraced Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), one of the few lawmakers who attended the moment of silence. Jackson and Lawrence shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder. The crowd, still numb from the weekend, began to disperse.

"This reminds us that we are all bonded," Norton told reporters. "If there is any good that comes out of this, it is the reminder that we shouldn't wait for tragic moments to bring us together."

But it was tragedy that brought Capitol Hill together Monday. And it's likely the spats and fights will inevitably return, perhaps even over how to proceed after this weekend's gunfire.

"I do not think it is helpful for Members to focus on their own safety. We are not the ones who are in danger," said Norton. "The reason we are elected every two years is that the framers wanted us to get as close to the people as possible for them to judge us. And one way they will judge us is if they see us fleeing from them because they will think we're afraid of them."

Norton noted that she represents "a very violent city" but never feared for her safety as a lawmaker.

But Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) sees it differently.

"We need to increase the protection if we are to do our work," said Hinojosa.

However, amid the pall, the work went on Monday. Even if the Congressional community had taken a few moments to reflect.

Bouquets and flowers began to appear on the center steps of the Capitol.

Around 3 pm, hundreds of aides again convened, this time in a gigantic hearing room for a multi-denominational prayer service. One level below, mourners signed booklets offering condolences and well wishes which were positioned on tables on the floor of the Cannon Rotunda. Many choked back tears as they left the service, their eyes glistening. Some aides dabbed their faces with handkerchiefs.

And yet the work went on. Even in 1030 Longworth, the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). In the afternoon, a man appeared in front of the office and asked two police officers guarding the door if he could enter to drop something off.

"They're open for business," responded the cop.

Congress is open for business. And regardless of her prognosis, the work of Giffords will go on, performed by her aides. That's what staff does. Often with little credit.

One of Giffords' loyal aides, Gabe Zimmerman, gave his life in a supermarket parking lot Saturday morning. Congressional aides Ron Barber and Pam Simon were on hand to help too when they were wounded.

And now you know a few of the names of the people behind the scenes on Capitol Hill.

There are thousands of other obscure Gabe Zimmermans, Ron Barbers and Pam Simons who gathered on the House steps Monday. They were front and center for the moment of silence.

But once that moment passed, the staffers disappeared as quickly as they materialized. To again work in obscurity, but on the front lines.